Lectionary Commentaries for October 21, 2018
Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 10:35-45

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson

Following hot on the heels of the rich young man who goes away grieving, this week we have another famous story.

Oh, James and John, you foolish boys. Of course, following Jesus doesn’t mean being powerful like the rulers of the Gentiles. Of course, it’s all about servant leadership. Jesus is so deep, and you’re so shallow. Then we good Christians scout out clever ways to “serve” in self-aggrandizing fashion, as immortalized in the words of Weird Al’s “Amish Paradise”: “You know I’m a million times as humble as thou art.”

And that’s to say nothing of the famous one-off term “ransom” that launched a thousand atonement theories.

Other commentators have already handled these themes with great aplomb on this site, so I’ll turn my attention instead to the peculiar eruption in the text of the word “baptism.”

To this point in Mark’s story, you have far more reason to associate baptism with John than with Jesus. In fact, so far as anyone knows, John was the first to baptize other people. Jewish tradition is full of ablutions, but they are all performed on oneself (let us call that autobaptism). John was the one who got the idea to perform ablutions on others — or better, to invite people to submit themselves to a rite of purification performed upon them by another (this we can call heterobaptism).

So, John turns up at the Jordan “baptizing in the wilderness” and “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). In response, “all the country… were being baptized by him” (Mark 1:5). Then, having just barely established the new precedent of heterobaptism in water (hydroheterobaptism, anyone?), John ups the ante considerably with the announcement that someone else is coming to baptize them with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8, which would give us pneumatoheterobaptism). By the way, preachers take note, Luke/Matthew/Q add on the bit about fire (pyropneumatoheterobaptism), but it’s not in Mark. Sure enough, Jesus comes along to get baptized (Mark 1:9) and in the process gets doused with the Holy Spirit, too (Mark 1:10).

Still, baptism seems to stick to John like a locust to a stalk of wheat. In Mark 6, the unsavory business at the Herodian household, John is three times called “the Baptist,” as he is again in Mark 8 by the disciples when Jesus teases a confession out of their halting lips. Jesus too speaks of “the baptism of John” in Mark 11:30, asking whether it is heavenly or human — though when the chief priests and scribes and elders decline to give an answer, he does too, leaving us still in the dark. Jesus never earns the appellation “Baptist” for himself and makes no allusion to Christian baptism, which is perhaps why the longer and probably later ending feels the need to draw the connection (Mark 16:16).

The point is: Jesus’ use of baptism imagery in the confrontation with James and John is unexpected, indeed startling. By way of synoptic contrast, Matthew blames the boys’ mom for asking the glory question in the first place and retains Jesus’ words about a “cup” he must drink but not about a baptism he must undergo; Luke drops the episode altogether, though in another context he places a similar thought on Jesus’ lips: “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!” (Luke 12:50).

Even if, say, Mark bumped into Paul en route to Rome and peered over his Epistle-writing shoulder round about Romans 6, the expected result would be to tie baptism to Jesus’ burial rather than to his passion as a whole, as the Markan text seems to suggest.

All told, this baptism business is not the biggest nor the most important interpretive move regarding the cross in the New Testament. But the allusion to baptism is nevertheless an evocative one, and in some ways more promising than the elusive “ransom.”

But what does it mean? Restricting ourselves only to the Markan clues, we can glean a few ideas.

First, the cross is heterobaptism — it is a passion that one must undergo, not an action that one chooses to undertake. The distinguishing feature of baptism in Mark (and in Christianity) is precisely that it is not performed upon oneself, although one may approach it willingly, as Jesus does. James and John misunderstand the glory that they are pursuing actively, for Jesus’ “baptism” is not a matter of action but of passion. Their boastful assurance “we are able!” earns a response from Jesus whose irony can only be grasped by those who read to the end of the story: you bet you’re going to undergo this baptism, but it doesn’t mean what you think it means.

This passion, this cross, this heterobaptism then sheds light on what it means to be a leader who serves not by lording but by submitting. It even illuminates, to a degree, what it is to be a “ransom” — there is a marked element of helplessness in being the trading token or sacrificial lamb.

All this would seem to be a commendation of pure passivity — and perhaps in activistic, boosteristic, optimistic American culture there is something to be said for confronting our folks with the passivity of the passion now and then — were it not for an allusion way back in Mark 1: the gift of the Spirit.

John’s baptism is only hydroheterobaptism, but Jesus’ baptism — which every early hearer of Mark had probably undergone and/or seen done, even if the Gospel didn’t have much to say about it — adds on the pneumato element. Not that this is an altogether comfortable thing. In Mark, the main jobs of the Spirit are to drive into the wilderness, proffer words in the moment of persecution, and get fatally sinned against. Being possessed of the Spirit is also a passion.

Really, James and John had no idea what they were getting themselves into.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 53:4-12

Juliana Claassens

The text we read today is central to what has come to be known as the Suffering Servant tradition.

The Servant of God who has been crushed, afflicted, and wounded for our transgressions. A despised and dismissed nobody, this Servant is called the righteous one, the one who in the past has born the sin of many, and in the future shall make many righteous, which includes also making intercession for the transgressors. This Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52-53 in the New Testament and beyond has come to be associated with the Man on the Cross whom artists throughout the centuries have identified as Ecce Homo. “Behold the man!” Jesus Christ with the crown of thorns and a wounded body serving as a powerful image of a broken and suffering humanity.

But, at the same time, this image of the suffering servant also functions as a powerful image of salvation, of redemption, of healing. In verse 4, the “we” are said to be made whole, and healed through the servant’s suffering. And verse 10 states that the “he” shall see the light out of his anguish and be satisfied by knowledge. He himself shall be righteous and also make the “many” righteous as well.

Much has been written on the identity of this suffering servant as well as the “we” and the “many”. Scholars have asked whether the suffering servant is a remarkable individual in that particular time, the prophet himself, the Messiah to come. Others maintain that the suffering servant ought to be read on a symbolic level as representing the returning exiles whom are called to witness to their fellow Judeans. Or collectively as representing all of Israel highlighting their vocation to be a light to all of the nations.

Actually, one finds quite a few examples of personification stemming out of the anguished time before and during the very traumatic time of the Babylonian invasion and exile. For instance, in Jeremiah 8:22-9:1, we see how the suffering prophet Jeremiah is wounded (in Hebrew “broken”) because of the wounds (in Hebrew “brokenness”) of the people, and how the violated body of the young woman Zion on quite a visceral level represents the invaded, violently destroyed city of Jerusalem in Lamentations 1-2.

In all of these interpretations of Isaiah 53:4-12 that seek to pinpoint the identity of the “he,” who bore the sins of many, and who suffered great anguish on behalf of the “we,” is the image of a suffering human transcending their own situation to serve as a beacon of hope for others to come.

In a fascinating article, “Ecce Homo, Ain’t (Ar’n’t) I a Woman, and Inappropriate/d Others: The Human in a Post-Humanist Landscape,” Donna Haraway makes us aware of the intrinsic problem of using a male figure as image for all of humanity. In an intriguing intertext, she refers to the classic “Ain’t I a woman” speech by the 19th century African American abolitionist and feminist, Sojourner Truth. In 1851, in Akron, Ohio, Sojourner Truth spoke the following powerful words:

But what’s all dis here talkin’ ‘bout? Dat man ober dar say dat women needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted ober ditches, and to have de best places — and ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! . . . I have plowed and planted and gathered into barns, and no man could head me — and ain’t I a woman? I could work as much as any man (when I could get it). And bear de lash as well and ain’t I a woman? I have borne five children and I seen ‘em mos all sold off into slavery, and when I cried with a mother’s grief, none but Jesus hear — and ain’t I a woman?1

Haraway writes that these words evoke the theme of the suffering servant. This “shockingly inappropriate figure,”2 a homeless black woman, a former slave who was raped by her owner, a mother robbed of her children, claims through her words that she is not a thing, an object, an animal, but a human, and more specifically a woman who knows more than her share of suffering. This particular woman thus emerges as “the bearer of the promise of humanity for womanhood in general, and indeed, the bearer of the promise of humanity also for men.”3

Originally called Isabella Baumfree by her Dutch slave master, in 1843, this prophet received a divine calling to preach liberation for both slaves and women and took the name of Sojourner Truth as “sojourner” proclaiming “truth” for all to hear. Like Moses of old, her message sought to lead the people out of slavery to a new life — a life where their humanity is affirmed. In this way, Sojourner Truth serves as a symbol that extends beyond her own particularity to humanity itself.

She proclaims herself not to be property to be bought or sold; nor an animal whose sole function in life is to work in the fields; nor a dehumanized individual with no rights. But rather in her speech, she proclaims herself to be a human, and more specifically a woman with agency, who can decide where to live, where to work, where to move, whom to love, whether to have children or not.

This example of Sojourner Truth corroborates what Walter Brueggemann has written about the ability of this text of the suffering servant to speak beyond its own context:

The poem surely intends, in its endless generativity, to be reread and reheard and reembraced, always with a concrete particularity but always with a transformative inscrutability that changes everything.4

In this way, we are challenged by the example of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53, by the suffering servant in the form of Sojourner Truth and the many examples of very human men and women: vulnerable, frail, and limited individuals and groups who, like the suffering servant and Sojourner Truth, transcend their particularity to become a symbol that inspires others far beyond their own time and place.


  1. Donna Haraway, “Ecce homo, ain’t (ar’n’t) I a woman, and inappropriate/d others: The human in a post-humanist landscape.” In Judith Butler & Joan Wallach Scott (eds.), Feminists Theorize the Political. (Routledge, 1992), 90-91.
  2. Haraway, 91.
  3. Haraway, 91.
  4. Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998), 149.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Job 38:1-7 [34-41]

W. Dennis Tucker, Jr.

After the two introductory chapters in the book of Job, the voice of God goes silent.

Job laments in chapter 3. Bildad, Zophar, and Eliphaz, along with Job, engage in a round-robin series of speeches (Job 4-27), culminating in Job’s lengthy defense in chapters 29-31. A new friend, Elihu, appears and offers his theological analysis in 32-37, and throughout all of this, despite Job’s dogged requests, God remains silent.

The silence God ends with Job 38-41, that much is for sure, but the precise meaning of these speeches has befuddled readers. The puzzlement for interpreters stems both from what is absent in the speeches as well as what is present. Throughout the book, Job has rooted his speeches in legal metaphors, with repeated requests that Yahweh provide Job with “an indictment written by my adversary” (Job 31:35b). Job’s assumption, so it seems, is that if God cannot produce a list of charges against him, then the friends have been proven incorrect and God unjust. Yet surprisingly, the speeches of God seem to have very little to do with the complaints issued by Job. In fact, the speeches seem to have little to do with Job altogether.

Rather than legal metaphors, images from nature, both animate and inanimate, comprise the speeches. In the opening verse of Job 38-41, Yahweh appears not as a judge, but instead speaks to Job “out of the whirlwind.” Yahweh does not issue an indictment, as Job had anticipated, but commands Job to “gird up his loins.” Although “girding up loins” can refer to military preparations for battle (2 Samuel 22:40), the term can also allude to preparations for a difficult task (Jeremiah 1:17). It is the latter that seems in view in Job 38:3.

There are some interpreters who understand the onslaught of questions in Job 38-39 as something akin to a “verbal beat down,” a verbal chastisement for what they perceive as Job’s mistaken (and misguided) bravado earlier in the book. Such a reading fails in understanding the nature of wisdom and the wisdom of nature in these speeches, and worse yet, such a reading misconstrues God as a tyrant unwilling to be engaged. The rhetorical questions regarding nature are not intended as punitive but instead as educative. After all, Job is a wisdom book meant for instruction. Job is asked to gird up his loins to do the hard work of reorienting his view of God and the world under God’s care.

The key to understanding the series of questions posed by God in verses 4-41 is the question directed at Job in verse 2: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” The word “counsel” typically refers to planning, and in this instance, the plans of God. Job has repeatedly suggested that the world seems disorderly, that God has “taken his hand off the wheel,” so to speak. Yet rather than confirming that the world is a disorderly place, the questions directed at Job affirm that not only does the world operate in an orderly fashion but that God is the author of that order.

The speeches of God in Job 38 recall and employ all elements of the cosmos in the argumentation, from the very depths of the earth (“foundations,” verse 4) to the heights of the heavens (verses 31-33). In each instance, God announces that the elements of creation have been positioned exactly as intended.

For some, God has established certain boundaries. God closed the doors on the unruly sea to ensure that it remains as intended (verse 8) and created storehouses for rain, ice, and snow (verses 22, 28, 34). For others, God declares that he has created the pathways that ensure that the world is regulated and orderly. The pathways of night and day (verses 12, 19) have been established as have been the ways of the heavens, the Pleiades, Orion, and the Mazzaroth (verses 31-34). This tour de force of nature is not a matter of one-upmanship, but an assurance by God that the world remains ordered and imbued with a certain sense of wisdom (verses 36-37).

If, as suggested in my treatment of Job 1-2, the book of Job is about God and not Job, then we must ask what does Job 38 contribute to our theological reflection about God? Job’s complaint was that disorder in his own life implied that creation had run amuck and worse yet, that God had abandoned his just rule over the world. The first speech by God suggests otherwise. Job 38 is not meant to explain what happened to Job in chapters 1-2, but rather to affirm that creation remains ordered by God.

The meteorological and cosmological features of the world confirm that all of creation has been put in place with boundaries established. As seen in Job 40-41, even chaos (that is Behemoth and Leviathan) itself does not go unchecked but instead remains under the watchful eye of God. None of this is a promise that chaos and disaster will not break out, but only that creation is not greater than its Creator.

In the end, mechanistic worldviews prove futile in explaining the complex world in which we live, but through careful consideration of that very same world, our understanding of God is reoriented and our awareness of the same deepened.


Commentary on Psalm 91:9-16

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

Although it is not entirely unique in the Psalter, the most striking thing about Psalm 91 is that it ends with a divine speech in verses 14-16.1

Usually when God speaks in the Psalms, it is to express divine displeasure and to call people to account. See, for instance, Psalms 50:7-23; 81:6-16; and 95:8-11, although it is interesting that 50:15, 23 and 81:16 suggest that God “will deliver,” “will show … salvation,” and “would satisfy,” if the people will listen and respond faithfully. It is perhaps not coincidental that the very things that Psalms 50:15, 23 and 81:16 anticipate are what God explicitly promises in 91:14-16 (the Hebrew verb translated “deliver” in 50:15 is rendered as “rescued” in 91:15).

Indeed, the exact verbal links among these three psalms that contain divine address—Psalms 50, 81, and 91—are striking enough to suggest that Psalms 50 and 81 intentionally anticipate Psalm 91; or perhaps more precisely, they anticipate Psalms 90-91 at the beginning of Book IV of the Psalter.

Psalm 89 at the end of Book III has articulated the crisis of exile by relating the failure of the Davidic covenant (see verses 38-51). In what seems to be an intentional response, Book IV begins with a prayer attributed to Moses, as if Moses were interceding for the people in exile as he did for the wilderness generation when the covenant was in jeopardy (see Exodus 32:1-14, and see the commentary on Psalm 90:12-17, Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost).

Following upon Psalm 90, Psalm 91:14-16 seems to suggest that the prayer of Moses has been answered. Verse 16a—”With long life I will satisfy them”—is an especially appropriate response to the petition of 90:14, repeating the verb “satisfy” and offering “long life” to people who in Psalm 90 were acutely aware of human transience. In response to Moses’ intercession, God promises to do the things that Psalms 50 and 81 have said that God had been wanting to do all along, but that God apparently was unable to effect among an inattentive and uncooperative people.

The contrast between the divine address in 90:14-16 and the earlier divine speech in Psalms 50 and 81 suggests that the people’s response to God is crucial, in terms of whether or not they experience the deliverance, salvation, and satisfaction that God wills for them. This does not mean that God will deliver the people only when they obey and thus deserve God’s favor.

Rather, it suggests that the favor God always offers will be ineffective among an unreceptive, untrusting people. Thus, it is crucial that the divine promises in Psalm 91:14-16 are preceded in verses 1-13 by an eloquent profession of trust. Again, it is as if the prayer of Moses in Psalm 90 has been answered—that is, the people have been able to “gain a wise heart” (90:12), which means they have renounced autonomy and thus have fully entrusted themselves and their future to God. Indeed, it is precisely such trust that constitutes deliverance, salvation, and satisfaction (see Psalm 9:9-10).

To be sure, readers and interpreters of Psalm 91 have not always understood this. Rather, the promises expressed in verses 1-13 and reinforced by the divine address in verses 14-16 have often been understood as something like a magical guarantee against any form of opposition or distress. Granted, several of the promises seem to point in this direction, including verses 9-13 that begin the lection for the day; however, we are dealing here with poetic hyperbole.

The keyword in Psalm 91 is “refuge” (see verses 2, 4, 9; see also 2:12; 5:11; 7:1; 11:1; 16:1, and often in the prayers for help), which assumes the need for protection and help.  And the protection and help that God promises assumes the existence of all manner of trouble and opposition, especially in verses 3-13—enemies, illness, and ferocious attack by people and animals (although the animals in verse 13 may be metaphors for human opponents).

As for verses 14-16, it is to be noted that the divine promises are stated primarily by seven finite verbs. Since the number seven often symbolizes fullness or completion, this is probably not coincidental—that is, God promises complete assurance. But there is an eighth element in verses 14-16; and it stands out by virtue of being near the center of the sequence, as well as by being the one promise stated in a verbless clause.

It is the middle element of verse 15; and a literal translation is as follows: “with him [am] I in trouble” (emphasis added). As the added emphasis indicates, the divine promise assumes the existence of trouble and opposition. In short, the deliverance, salvation, and satisfaction that God promises do not mean a care-free, unopposed life. Rather, those who fully entrust themselves to God experience deliverance, salvation, and satisfaction in the midst of opposition and trouble.

The context of the Psalter reinforces this conclusion. The righteous prayers of the psalmist are never without opposition or trouble (which, of course, is why the prayers for help are generally known as laments, complaints, or protests). Then too, this conclusion is reinforced by the way verses 11-12 show up in the New Testament.

In Matthew 4:5-7 and Luke 4:9-12, the devil cites verses 11-12 in an attempt to entice Jesus to throw himself down from the top of the Temple. While it is interesting to see that the devil knows the Psalms, his misappropriation of verses 11-12 is instructive. Jesus’ refusal to embrace the devil’s interpretation suggests that to claim the promises of verses 11-12 for self-serving purposes is unfaithful. It amounts to testing God rather than trusting God. Jesus will not claim the promises of Psalm 91 as a way to avoid suffering.  Rather, when Jesus claims the promise of divine protection and help, it is from the cross (see Luke 23:46, quoting Psalm 31:5).

In conclusion, it should be noted that the promise at the heart of the divine address—”with him [am] I in trouble” (verse 15)—is the same promise that lies at the heart of another of the Psalter’s most eloquent psalms of assurance/trust: “for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4).

This promise comes, of course, in the midst of “the darkest valley.” As the psalmists knew, and as Jesus revealed as well, the delivering, saving, satisfying presence of God does not prevent trouble, opposition, and suffering. Rather, it promises the strength to persevere, endure, and overcome (see Romans 8:31-39).


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Oct. 21, 2012.

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 5:1-10

Craig R. Koester

Vulnerability is a theme of this week’s reading from Hebrews.

The passage continues the focus on the priestly ministry of Jesus, which was part of last week’s reading. But it also explores the dimension of vulnerability for all who exercise pastoral leadership — and for all people of faith.

The opening section speaks of priestly responsibility in terms that would have been familiar to the first readers of Hebrews (5:1-4). It begins with the most visible aspects, which center on worship. In ancient Israel the most prominent actions of a high priest involved making or overseeing the sacrifices that set the ongoing rhythm of worship in the temple.

The book of Leviticus gives the details of the offerings made both morning and evening. The gifts that worshipers brought to express thanks or to seek forgiveness for sin. There were offerings of sheep, goats, and doves. Offerings of grain and the first fruits of the harvest. Clouds of incense and the scent of burnt meat and blood were all part of the scenes in which people thought of priests. And the same was true among the Greeks and Romans. Their religious festivals too had priests, who offered gifts at the altar. It was the most visible part of the job.

Then the passage turns to the way the priest was to deal with people. The writer refers to “the ignorant and wayward,” which sounds less than charitable (Hebrews 5:2). But the comment calls attention to the fact that so much of ministry involves places where good intentions inadvertently bring negative results. It calls to mind the countless times we hear people in our own communities saying, “I didn’t mean to…” or “What was I thinking?” or “If I’d only known….” And yet damage has been done. So pastor, now what?

Instead of giving a simple answer, Hebrews points to the fact that everyone involved in ministry has been in that same position of needing to own something that has gone wrong. In ancient Israel, the high priest had to offer sacrifices for his own sins in addition to those made for the sins of the people. In current ministry, those who lead the congregation in the confession of sins include themselves among those who fall short.

Those who provide the means of grace for the congregation also need to receive the bread and wine with the promise of forgiveness. The question is not whether people in ministry are flawed and fallible. The question is how that deep sense of self-awareness might position them to minister well among those whom they serve.

The moral failings of those in ministry have had a profoundly negative effect on public perceptions of the church. The jarring contradictions between the values that leaders sometimes express and their failings to live up to those values undermine the credibility of the church’s witness as a whole. And the same is true of all who belong to the Christian community. Each follower of Jesus is a flawed human being.

So having named this reality, Hebrews then turns to how it actually might shape the way we see Christ and understand what it means to serve in his name. Last week the writer depicted Christ as a priest who can “sympathize” or better “show compassion” for vulnerable people (Hebrews 4:15). There Hebrews was clear that Christ’s compassion came not from moral failings sinfulness but from his profound experience of vulnerability through suffering.

The same is true in the passage for this week, where the writer depicts Christ’s loud cries, tears, and prayers (Hebrews 5:7). The gospel accounts of Jesus in Gethsemane and his calling to God from the cross make this vivid in narrative form. The language of Hebrews also recalls that of the Psalms, which express what it means to be deeply vulnerable through suffering (Psalm 22:1-2; 116:1-10). And the writer says that such experience is integral to the way Christ lived out his calling to bring salvation to others.

Hebrews insists that ministering is not a right but a calling, even for Christ himself. The early readers would have agreed that Jesus was the Son of God, and the writer quotes Psalm 2:7 to emphasize that aspect of Jesus’ identity. But then he quotes from Psalm 110, where God gives a priestly role to his Son. Where Psalm 110:1 spoke of the royal figure at God’s right hand, Psalm 110:4 said that this figure is a priest after the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 5:5-6). The significance of Melchizedek will be developed in Hebrews 7. What is important here is simply that there were priests outside the traditional order of Aaron, who was mentioned in Hebrews 5:4.

With that in mind, the author brings the key points together. Ministry is not a right, but a calling. And God calls those who understand human vulnerability because they have experienced it. That was true for Jesus, whose experience of suffering belongs to the compassion he extends to others who struggle.

Jesus meets those in the struggle in order to bring them through the struggle into renewed relationship with God and into the forms of service to which God calls them. It is clear that vulnerability is not an end in itself for Jesus or for those who follow. Rather, it is through that gift of shared humanity that grace is given, that bonds are formed, and that the promise of God’s future continues to bring hope and renewal.